Battle of Little Bighorn: 50 – Sitting Bull

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"The Custer Fight" by Charles Marion Russell. Lithograph. Shows the Battle of Little Bighorn, from the Indian side.

The Sioux and Cheyenne were streaming into the camps of the hostiles. Along the banks of the Rosebud a great camp was gathered as some 15,000 or more Sioux worked their way northward, searching for game and fresh grass. That thousands of warriors were collecting in the unceded territory would have astounded government officials who still believed what Commissioner Smith had reported to them the previous fall:

It is not probable that as many as 500 Indian warriors will ever again be mustered in one place for a fight.”

By the end of April 1876, there were at least seven times that erroneous number of Indians gathered in the unceded territory.

In May, Sitting Bull took White Bull, Jumping Bull, and a son of Black Moon to a hilltop to listen to his prayer. Sitting Bull carried his pipe and they all participated in a long pipe ceremony. Then Sitting Bull stood and faced the sun. He prayed to Wakantanka to provide game for his people through the winter so they wouldn’t starve. He asked that they have more power and for all Sioux to get along well. He then promised to dance two days and nights and to give Wakantanka a buffalo.

Just as he’d pledged, Sitting Bull organized a sun dance. It took place in their village in the valley of the Rosebud where they had moved to on June 4.

Previously, Sitting Bull had made another vow—to give flesh. After purifying in a sweat lodge, he entered the dance circle. He performed a pipe ceremony then sat back with his arms resting on the ground against his thighs. Beginning at the bottom of Sitting Bull’s left arm, Jumping Bull inserted an awl beneath Sitting Bull’s skin and removed the first of one hundred bits of this great man’s flesh.

As his blood flowed and his arms began to swell painfully, Sitting Bull “cried out in sacrifice and supplication to Wakantanka.” He then rose and danced for many hours while fasting and gazing at the sun. But, at last, he stopped dancing, and fainted, though he did not fall but stood, unconsciously staring at the sun. After he’d been eased to the ground he described for Black Moon the vision that had just come to him.

A voice had commanded him to look at an image just below the sun. There he saw many soldiers and horses bearing down on an Indian village below. The men and animals were upside down, their feet in the sky, their heads to the earth with hats falling off. He also saw some Indians who were upside down.

The voice spoke to him saying:

These soldiers do not possess ears. They are to die, but you are not supposed to take their spoils..

This meant that the Indians were not to take possessions or scalps, or mutilate soldiers who would die in a great battle with the Sioux. It was a warning from Wakantanka of dire things to happen if the Indians did not obey as directed.

After the sun dance, Sitting Bull’s camp and many others moved to the Little Bighorn.